Conflagration in Imbaba
"Relations between Egypt's Muslims and Christians degenerated to a new low Sunday after riots overnight left 12 people dead and a church burned, adding to the disorder of the country's post-revolution transition to democracy.
"The attack on the church was the latest sign of assertiveness by an extreme, ultraconservative movement of Muslims known as Salafis, whose increasing hostility toward Egypt's Coptic Christians over the past few months has met with little interference from the country's military rulers.
"Salafis have been blamed for other recent attacks on Christians and others they don't approve of. In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.
"The latest violence, which erupted in fresh clashes Sunday between Muslims and Christians who pelted each other with stones in another part of Cairo, also pointed to what many see as reluctance of the armed forces council to act. The council took temporary control of the country after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed on Feb. 11.
"After the overnight clashes in the slum of Imbaba, residents turned their anger toward the military. Some said they and the police did almost nothing to intervene in the five-hour frenzy of violence."
Ursula Lindsey notes additional angles, including a detailed account of how things started. The immediate spark was on-line rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held in the church and seeking liberation. There is no evidence that such a woman ever existed, but some undoubtedly found it plausible because part of the Egyptian government's policy of trying to prevent any religious conversion ever is to hand possible Christian converts to Islam over to the Coptic Church for sustained anti-conversion counseling. The Salafis, organizing through social media, began gathering outside the church, accumulating a crowd from the neighborhood, as well. Things escalated when the military appeared, though the reasons are unclear. A crowd including both Christians and Muslims tried and failed to prevent the arson.
Sarah Carr of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has a similar account partially drawing on the one I quoted above:
"Zeinobia further points out that the rumour about Abeer began two hours after an interview with Kamilia Shehata – another woman who Salafis allege converted to Islam from Christianity but is being held against her will by the church – aired on the Christian Al-Hayat channel. During the interview Shehata denied that she has ever changed her religion...
"Exactly 100 days after the revolution - when Egypt’s sectarian divisions were briefly forgotten – eleven people have reportedly been killed, tens injured and Christian homes and shops destroyed. The army announced today that it has arrested 190 people in relation to the events and will try them in military courts, but the question remains why the authorities seemingly sat on its hands while violent protestors attacked the Mar Mina church for hours on end."
The geography of these riots matters. Two recent big conflagrations have come in a rural village where Muslims believed Coptic priests were using magic to undermine Muslim marriages and the slums around Muqattam Heights in Cairo. Imbaba is centrally located, but still a poor neighborhood. In other words, anti-Christian violence is coming from the poor and uneducated in a national revolutionary situation in which law and order have become weak.
Salafis are strongest in the poor neighborhoods, where there are lots of unlicensed mosques and independent preachers who often have some sort of connection to the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia. Egyptian popular rumor that the Imbaba clashes were the work of Saudi intelligence speaks to that influence, though it also stems from an Egyptian tendency to blame internal problems on foreigners. Al-Masry al-Yawm names one figure to watch:
"Mohamed Hassan, a prominent Salafi figure, is taking much of the blame. Hassan has, controversially, mediated a number of recent sectarian conflicts in Egypt, but is also widely seen as a provocateur.
"'I want to tell Mohamed Hassan that you are the reason for all of this,' said Atef Erian, a young Copt in Imbaba who was injured in yesterday’s clashes. 'Please don’t worsen the relations between Muslims and Copts with your harebrained ideas.'
"'He and like-minded sheikhs were behind the whole case of Kamilia Shehata, and then he pretends to be a peaceful man seeking to bridge the differences between Muslims and Copts,' added Erian."
Finally, the violence is not coming from a belief that Islam requires hostility to Christianity. It is instead based on rumor and in some cases superstitions about alleged Christian threats to the Muslim community. Contrary to the way these matters are often discussed on the right, what just happened in Imbaba is far more similar to hate crimes against mosques in the United States and Europe than the Ottoman sieges of Vienna. The threat to the Copts is that they are a minority seen as an internal Other posing some imaginary threat to the majority. This is also why we continue to see grassroots opposition to sectarian violence. The battle taking place in Egypt takes the form of Muslim versus Christian, but is part of a larger struggle against ignorance, intolerance, and hatred.